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Green Revolutions

Recently, there’s been a lot of debate generated by a study done by a research team at the University of Caen in France. Last month, they published a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, in which they alleged that rats fed Monsanto’s genetically modified maize and exposed to the herbicide Roundup – also produced by Monsanto – over the course of a lifetime, developed tumours and suffered multiple organ damage.

Terrible photographs of some alarmingly lumpy rats circulated around the internet, and it seemed that the green movement’s vociferous opposition to GM crops was vindicated. But almost as soon as the study’s findings were announced, doubts – around the validity of the research itself and the way it had been communicated – began to emerge.

Not only have similar, more rigorous tests, demonstrated that GM crops had no impact on health, but, as the New Scientist reported:

the strain of rat the French team used gets breast tumours easily, especially when given unlimited food, or maize contaminated by a common fungus that causes hormone imbalance, or just allowed to age.

Moreover:

Five of the 20 control rats – 25 per cent – got tumours and died, while 60 per cent in ‘some test groups’ that ate GM maize died. Some other test groups, however, were healthier than the controls.

…the team claims to see the same toxic effects both with actual Roundup, and with the GM maize – whether or not the maize contained any actual herbicide. It is hard to imagine any way in which a herbicide could have identical toxic effects to a gene tweak that gives the maize a gene for an enzyme that actually destroys the herbicide.

This research isn’t entirely without value: it could suggest that even the smallest dose of weed killer or GM maize has the potential to cause physiological harm.

But even this conclusion is undermined by the circumstances in which the study was produced. The research team at Caen is open about its opposition to GM crops; and the anti-GM organisation which orchestrated the publicity around the release of the report, refused to allow journalists to consult other scientists about the paper.

As we’re right to be suspicious of studies undertaken by scientists affiliated to industry – the implications of which Ben Goldacre explores in his latest book on Big Pharma – so we must question the motives, however noble they may be, of this research team funded by anti-GM groups.

What I found so interesting about the response to the study was the vehemence of the anti-GM crop lobby. Like the debates around nuclear energy and, even, animal testing, it seems to me that the strength of feeling – on both sides – has a tendency to shut down all reasonable discussion. I was appalled when, earlier this year, a group of anti-GM activists threatened to destroy a field of GM wheat planted by scientists at the publicly-funded Rothamsted Research. Their work aimed partly to reduce pesticides sprayed on crops.

On the other hand, though, pro-GM scientists, economists, and others seem to be too quick to label those with – legitimate – concerns about the genetic modification of plants and animals as ‘anti-science.’ In an article from 2000, Norman Borlaug argued:

Extremists in the environmental movement, largely from rich nations and/or the privileged strata of society in poor nations, seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. It is sad that some scientists, many of whom should or do know better, have also jumped on the extremist environmental bandwagon in search of research funds. …

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the environmental movement that has taken place over the past 40 years. This movement has led to legislation to improve air and water quality, protect wildlife, control the disposal of toxic wastes, protect the soils, and reduce the loss of biodiversity. It is ironic, therefore, that the platform of the antibiotechnology extremists, if it were to be adopted, would have grievous consequences for both the environment and humanity.

His point is that GM crops have the potential to end world hunger. As the Nobel Peace Prize winner credited with originating the Green Revolution during the 1950s and 1960s, Borlaug was in a position to argue– with some validity – that selective plant breeding had helped to feed a world of, now, seven billion people.

In 1943, concerned about the link between food shortages and political upheaval – particularly as the Cold War loomed – the Rockefeller Foundation began sponsoring research into the development of new drought-resistant and higher yielding plant species in Mexico.

Focussing on wheat, maize, and rice, Borlaug and other scientists affiliated with the programme cross-bred higher-yielding species. These new seeds were distributed at first in Mexico, India, and the Philippines. It’s difficult to underestimate the impact of this research, as Gordon Conway explains:

Cereal yields, total cereal production and total food production in the developing countries all more than doubled between 1960 and 1985. Over the same period their population grew by about 75 per cent. As a result, the average daily calorie supply in the developing countries increased by a quarter, from under 2,000 calories per person in the early 1960s to about 2,500 in the mid-80s, of which 1,500 was provided by cereals.

The Green Revolution has made it possible to feed a population of seven billion people. But it had substantial drawbacks. Conway writes that the ‘potential’ of the Green Revolution crops

could only be realised if they were supplied with high quantities of fertiliser and provided with optimal supplies of water. As was soon apparent, the new varieties yielded better than the traditional at any level of fertiliser application, although without fertiliser they sometimes did worse on poor soils. Not surprisingly, average rates of application of nitrogen fertilisers, mostly ammonium sulphate and urea, doubled and redoubled over a very short period.

We know now that we need a new Green Revolution – one which is not as heavily reliant on water, and which does not poison and destroy ecosystems. There’s a certain logic, then, to many activists’ arguments that it’s ‘science’ which is to blame for present food insecurity: that a return to small-scale peasant farming offers the best means of supplying food to an ever-growing population.

This suspicion of ‘science’ – whatever we may mean by this – is nothing new. During the 1970s, for instance, the green movement emerged partly in response to concerns about the implications of the Green Revolution for human health, biodiversity, and water supplies. Much of this early environmentalism advocated a return to nature, and a rejection of technology.

I haven’t made up my mind about the usefulness or otherwise of GM crops, but I hesitate over the whole-hearted embrace of ‘traditional’ methods of farming. It’s worth remembering that pre-industrial agriculture required the majority of the world’s population to be involved in food production in order to stave off hunger. Now, in developed nations, this number has plummeted to only a couple of per cent. In sub-Saharan Africa, seventy per cent of the population remains in engaged in agriculture, although this is also likely to decline.

Better technology and higher-yielding plant varieties have freed up the majority of the world’s population to do other forms of work. The world has changed a great deal since the eighteenth century.

What concerns me more, though, are the businesses which push GM crops – those which are at the receiving end of European and African bans on the planting of genetically modified wheat, maize, and other plants. Monsanto and Cargill are currently the target of a campaign to end the patenting of seeds – making them cheaper and more freely available to small farmers in the developing world.

These two companies, in particular, have a growing control over the world’s food supply. Not only do they own seed patents, but they provide pesticides and fertilisers. Cargill produces meat and grows grain – in fact, no one knows how much grain it has stored in its silos. Given that Cargill and the commodities trader Glencore have both admitted that their profits have increased as a result of the drought in the US and the resultant rise in food prices around the world, it’s exceptionally worrying that these organisations have so much control over our food chain.

What the GM debate reveals is a set of complex and shifting attitudes around the relationship between food, farming, and science – and around how we define what is ‘natural’. Instead of rejecting the potential benefits of GM crops out of hand, I think it would be wise to encourage more research into their implications both for human health, and for the environment. Moreover, I think we need to scrutinise and hold to account big businesses like Monsanto, Glencore, and Cargill. They represent a far greater threat to our ability to feed ourselves.

Further Reading

Norman Borlaug, ‘Ending World Hunger: The Promise of Biotechnology and the Threat of Antiscience Zealotry,’ Plant Physiology, vol. 124 (Oct. 2000), pp. 487-490.

Gordon Conway, The Doubly Green Revolution (London: Penguin, 1997).

Joseph Cotter, Troubled Harvest: Agronomy and Revolution in Mexico, 1880-2002 (New York: Praeger, 2003).

John H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Himmat Singh, Green Revolutions Reconsidered: The Rural World of Contemporary Punjab (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001).

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. There was also a UN report that stated that the productivity of small farmers was equal to factory farming, natural, no chemical, manure based farming produces healthier soils, and equal amounts of food!
    I would agree that natural selection and hybrydizing is an ancient tradition to increase productivity, but it is best done locally by the farmer pickign the healthiest plants for next year’s seeds, in his local terroir, best adapted to those conditions, that is just as effective as all the chemical inputs which take money out of the local economy!

    October 9, 2012

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